2009 English National Championship - Retrospective


Black Dyke had everything to lose in Preston at the weekend - but old habits die hard...

Back Dyke
Time to celebrate: Nicholas Childs and his happy band..
Picture: Rob Fletcher

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At times there are bands that have everything to win and nothing to lose, and those that have everything to lose and very little to win.

Black Dyke comes into the latter category – especially at the English Nationals in Preston this year.

Albino monk

In a world of increasingly bizarre realities, debating whether or not a band had an unfair advantage of its rivals because the test piece they were to play was written by one of its own players, ranks up there with the bonkers brigade who are now filling the internet with reports that Michael Jackson was murdered by an albino monk from the secret Opus Die sect.

The Queensbury band won the English National title because they played a very difficult test piece, exceptionally well – better than any of the 13 rivals at the Guild Hall in fact. Not that the conspiracy theorists will have you believe that, but then again, who needs facts when rumour and innuendo are the currency of stupidity.


Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s ‘Within Blue Empires’ proved to be both accessible and popular. Not the finished article by any stretch of the fervent imagination, (it could have done with a bit of nip and tuck on some of the musical blubber, and a little bit of toning of muscle to allow the multiple layers of detailed work to appear more readily), but one that showed that PLC has the almost priceless gift of connecting with the current zeitgeist of brass band musical taste.

Open and transparent, full of melody, treacherous technical hurdles (although nearly all, with the exception of the trombone and soprano elements, were overcome by some splendid individual playing in all the bands) and a very clever ability for original pastiche, the work was a formidable challenge for every band – winners included. He really is some talent.


It says a great deal that despite the conspiracy theories, there was a respect (although grudgingly in some cases) that it was a very good test piece for a contest to decide who went through to the European next year. It did its job – very well indeed.

Lived up to billing

Black Dyke were pre contest favourites and lived up to their billing, with perhaps the most musically literal performance heard from the band under Nicholas Childs for many a year.

This was an ‘…as per the label on the tin’ rendition of such high gloss finish you could almost see your face in it. 

Tempi and dynamics, balance and timbre were as per the score – right from the word go when the opening baritone voice of Gareth Brindle was played with delicious delicacy and flourish (he was surely close to winning the ‘Best Instrumentalist’ prize).

Nicholas Childs
The Childs Empire - Black Dyke's MD enjoys the moment...
Picture: Rob Fletcher

All to plan

From then on it all went to plan (a plan that had seen the band put in over a month of continuous preparation work in the bandroom), with excellent individual contributions from all the main solo lines based on a foundation of ensemble clarity and security that no other band came close to matching on the day.

By the time they hit the overdrive button in the finale, the title, and the £4,000 first prize was very nearly in the bag, and the last few chords, played with a balanced organ like sound put the seal on a performance that proved to be nigh on unbeatable.

This was Dyke back to their best – and the result was fully justified and deserved – even by those Dan Brown aficionados.

Come to life

Black Dyke’s performance rounded off a first half of a contest that for the most part had failed to come to life.

Reg Vardy opened proceedings on the stroke of 10.45am with a decent account under Ray Farr that further confirmed the impression that after a couple of uninspired seasons, they are starting to approach a level of major contesting consistency once more.

A compact and secure performance (with a fine individual contribution from Tormod Flaten on euphonium) saw them end up a little disappointingly in 10th place, after the MDs lyrical approach had a sense of fluid musicality about it (it came in at 19 minutes 20 seconds, on a day when some MDs opted for a QE2 like cruise of nearly 21 minutes). We suspect there are more good things to come from the band by the year’s end.

Carlton Main
Lyrical intent: Russell Gray and Kirsty Abbotts lead the way to calm waters...
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Poetic lyricism

Carlton Main followed under Russell Gray, and his romantically inspired treatise, although uneven in execution, did contain moments of almost poetic lyricism.

The technicalities strained at times, but given the chance to showcase the talents of Kirsty Abbotts (who won the ‘Best Instrumentalist Award) and friends in the central ‘Calm Waters’ section, the MD brought atmospheric serenity to the proceedings.   

It got a little messy on the return journey home, but by then it had done enough to set itself up as the early leader and hold onto it top six placing come the announcement of the results.

Calm Waters

The central ‘Calm Waters’ section also proved to be something of a talking point too – with the use of a CD soundtrack of whale ‘voices’ that formed the backdrop to a series of expressive cadenzas and growing ensemble melody, before the great leviathan leapt from the depths with a breach dive that would hopefully send a tsunami of musical ripples back to the judges box.

Unfortunately, not too many MDs saw it as an integral part of the music – more than a few giving it such a lack of prominence that it sounded like a cross between a farmer drowning puppies in a bucket or listening to the Clangers children’s television programme with your head stuck in a goldfish bowl.   

Those who did ensured that a surreal subterranean atmosphere was created – those who didn’t, better watch out for a visit from the RSPCA or the BBC licence fee detector van. 


For the rest of the first half the bands came and went without really making an lasting impression, despite benefiting from individual contributions that made a nonsense of the rumours that the technicalities of the piece were too difficult for mere mortals (as opposed to Black Dyke’s ‘Immortals’ as per another PLC piece) to play.

Never at ease

, with many a signed dep on parade, never seemed at ease from the start – especially with the dynamics, which at one point from the over enthusiastic percussion department totally obliterated the band.

It had its moments under Jeremy Wise, but these were not enough to secure a finish that deserved higher than its eventual 12th place.


So too Mount Charles, who’s funereal paced rendition (just a minim breath under 21 minutes) never once threatened a repeat of their splendid 4th place here twelve months ago.

Too many unforced errors, poor internal balances and tempi choices (although perhaps understandable given the ferocious nature of some of them) condemned them to last place. They had little to complain about. 


The trio of mediocrity was completed by Yorkshire Imps in 13th, who despite a brave and committed performance under David Evans, never really got to grips with both the technical or musical hurdles set out in the detailed and complex score.

Imps have endured a dreadful few months, and it may be a while before we see them grace a major contesting platform again – although hopefully, not too long.

With the piece running a little over time (despite the excellent decision to keep percussion movement to a minimum in the band set ups), the halfway point saw Black Dyke, a country mile ahead.


Straight after the break came an encouraging performance for Hammonds Saltaire under Morgan Griffiths.

They too have endured a tough time of it of late, but on this occasion the young charges (and many a player would have been asked for their ID at the Guild Hall bar) put in a very committed effort under the intelligent direction from the helm.

11th place may on paper not seem a great return, but this was a performance of merit and long term planning. Better days are on the horizon for Hammonds.


A band that has certainly gone through the process that Hammonds now find themselves in is Fairey.

Once again, Phil Chalk and his band can count themselves more than a little unfortunate that they didn’t quite get the return from the judge’s box that a colourful and hugely enjoyable rendition perhaps deserved.

Some classy contributions, especially from Mark Bousie on euphonium and Nick Walkley on soprano was balanced by secure ensemble (although it did get scrappy at times), which for many should have seen them pick up a top six place, rather than come in 7th. They are a band on the up though.


In contrast, Flowers rather workmanlike performance in 8th, was solid and purposeful, but lacked colour and contrast on a piece that cried out for it.

Paul Holland directed with an appreciation for the composers intent, but rather monochrome dynamics and a lack of nuance meant that it was a performance that all rather passed you by, despite the well delivered technical contributions from the band’s soloists.  

Burst into life

The contest finally burst into life with the arrival of Brighouse & Rastrick, and with Allan Withington injecting a sense of self confidence from the word go, they produced their best test piece contest playing for many a year.

Bold and bravura and very Brighouse it was too – although there was a real high gloss polish to both the ensemble and solo work that hinted of detailed preparation rather than just pure on stage adrenaline. 

By its close, they had given it their best shot (a little off Dyke’s according to the men in the box) and one that many (4BR included) felt pushed their oldest rivals all the way. 4th place was a disappointment, but the major contest winning potential of the band was there for all to hear.  Now, Professor King awaits – but even he will have his work cut out to replicate this cracker at the Open.

Ian Porthouse
Pointing in the right direction: Ian Porthouse leads Hepworth to second place
Picture: Rob Fletcher

High quality

The standard of the performances at this point was of a very high quality, and the level was maintained by both Hepworth (Cookson Homes) and Foden’s who followed.

Hepworth delivered a highly polished account – a little edgy at times, but so full of colour, excitement and the underlying feeling that they had worked their socks off in preparation.

All that hard graft (22 days out of the last 27 by all accounts) allied to a controlled interpretation from Ian Porthouse, was clearly defined and balanced, aided by a superb euphonium lead by James Fieldhouse and detailed ensemble.  To come runner up for the seconnd time in three years is no mean feat in anyone’s book – Hepworth is now a band to fear at all the major contests.

Garry Cutt
No celebratory pint in hand: A missed opportunity for Garry Cutt and Foden's
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Missed opportunity

may well reflect on a missed opportunity with this one.

It was playing from the top drawer without a doubt, but not Foden’s very top drawer. 

Classy and controlled (Glyn Williams was the pick of an excellent batch of euph players) it did have the odd blemish and a section of camouflage work that never came off – and that was enough just to see it fall short.

In the end it got what it deserved in third place, but this was Foden’s firing on only 10 of the their usual V12 cylinders.

Decent run

meanwhile continued their decent run of form under the baton of Alan Morrison to come 9th, although they too may be a little disappointed at their performance on the day.

Whilst it also had its moments (with a classy section of cadenzas in particular) it was ensemble inconsistencies that cost them the chance of coming any higher. The MDs intelligent reading of the score also helped their cause, but the execution never quite lived up to the initial ambition.


That just left Leyland and a performance that really did take its time to get going.

An uncharacteristically uneven opening seemed hampered by a tempi in need of a 40 volt jump start, but once it found its whale feet (or fins as the case may be) it turned into perhaps the most descriptive and enjoyably colourful performance of the day – full of nuance and atmosphere.

There was an underlying tension in the air at times, but by its close you felt it had done more than enough to push its way into the top six.

Universal approval

With the actually playing over by 5.30pm an early night in Preston was on the cards, but the usual rather self indulgent round of congratulatory speeches made sure things took much longer.

Thankfully Bob Kerwick made quick progress through the prizes and the announcement of Black Dyke as winners of the 2009 English National Championship was greeted with universal approval from the audience.

On a day when they had everything to lose and not a great deal to win, Black Dyke delivered in style to silence rivals, doubters, critics, conspiracy theorists and even the odd Albino monk.

Iwan Fox


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